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Slots revenue benefits county

July 18, 2004|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

As the fortunes of Charles Town Races & Slots rise, local governments enjoy the wealth.

For the fiscal year that ended June 30, patrons wagered more than $3.6 billion in slot machines at the track, about 22 percent more than the previous year.

It's been a bonanza for Jefferson County and its five municipalities, which received a shade more than $6 million.

"From the beginning, it's been far above our expectations," said Roger R. Ramey, the vice president of public affairs at Charles Town Races & Slots.

He said track officials told Jefferson County years ago to expect to reap $1 million when slot machines were introduced.

Initially, that estimate was not far off.

In fiscal year 1999, the first full year of slots at the track, the public wagered $565 million. Jefferson County received 2 percent of the net revenue, or $912,064.

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That was with an average of 830 slot machine terminals during the year.

Now, with nearly 3,600 slot machines, money comes in much faster.

'Full steam ahead'

The West Virginia Lottery reported that $89 million was wagered at Charles Town Races & Slots during the first 10 days of the current fiscal year.

Most of it - $81 million - went right back to the players in prize money.

Ramey said the escalation won't last forever.

"It's going to level off some due to what's going on around us," he said. "Currently, we're going full steam ahead."

Neighboring states have gotten into the slots game. Delaware has them and Pennsylvania just approved 61,000 machines.

Washington, D.C., and Maryland are considering approving slots, too.

Still, for the near future, slots revenue in Charles Town is likely to go up.

The track has almost 3,600 machines operating, but is approved by the West Virginia Lottery Commission for 4,500. Ramey said the remaining 900 machines will be phased in.

The extra machines are needed because players wait in lines to use the current machines - especially on the weekends, when 25,000 people a day visit, he said.

Getting their share


When slot machines first were added in 1997, Jefferson County received 2 percent of the net revenue. However, the five municipalities - Charles Town, Ranson, Shepherdstown, Bolivar and Harpers Ferry - got nothing.

That changed starting with fiscal year 2000. Jefferson County continues to get 2 percent - until revenues reach $912,063.48, the exact amount it received the previous year.

All proceeds above $912.063.48 are split - the county receives half and the five municipalities combined receive half.

The municipalities' share then is split according to population.

That first year, fiscal year 2000, the municipalities received a total of $304,458.

In fiscal year 2004, which just ended, four of the five municipalities each received more than that.

Ranson took in the most: $902,880.

Money benefits towns


Stephen Hudson, Ranson's finance officer, said the city has used its slots revenue to remodel City Hall, repave three-fourths of the city's streets and buy police cruisers, among other things.

"We try to spend it on things that can go away," he said. If the revenue isn't there, for example, a new garbage truck can wait.

Harpers Ferry received $93,943 in fiscal year 2004.

Mayor James Addy said the town's slots revenue has paid for street resurfacing; police equipment and a car; and "seed money" to help start Harpers Ferry Main Street, a revitalization organization.

Shepherdstown has put aside slots revenue each year, saving for a streetscape project, Mayor Peter Wilson said.

Wilson said the fund has more than $500,000 in it.

The town has hired an engineering firm to study the streets, sidewalks, open space and more for possible improvements.

Hudson, Addy and Wilson all estimated that slots revenue now makes up one-third or more of their overall budgets.

But all know the economic risk.

"It's primarily tourism money," Hudson said.

"We don't rely on it," Addy said. "We don't budget that money for operational expenses, per se."

Regardless, slot machines have been lucrative.

"I know people have their reservations about gambling, but this really has helped the town function economically," Addy said.

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